Last night, AMC screened the pilot of new show The Walking Dead, in which Andrew Lincoln’s small town Georgia sheriff Rick Grimes desperately attempts to reunite with his family in a zombie apocalypse. The result was an epic start to this adaptation of Robert Kirkman‘s long-running comic—and an amazingly horrific display by TV standards.
How did pilot director Frank Darabont get away with featuring so much bloody mayhem? Will a knowledge of the original comic series help viewers guess which characters are going to live and which become undead chow? And was that really Jim Carrey cameo-ing as a zombie?
After the jump, Robert Kirkman—who is also one of the writers on the show and a Walking Dead executive producer—tackles these questions and more. Though, be warned, at times the conversation leans toward the gory and, if you haven’t yet seen the pilot, spoilery.
Entertainment Weekly: I’m guessing the Walking Dead pilot is the first to open with the hero shooting a cute—if admittedly zombiefied—little girl in the head.
Robert Kirkman: That could be a first possibly, yeah.
EW: Even your original comic didn’t kick off in such a brutal fashion. Was there much discussion about that whether that was a good idea?
RK: You know, it was just something Frank put into the script. At no point did AMC say, “Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.” So I guess because it was treated like it wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t really occur to me how bold that was until I was on set. It was always a question as to how much of that they were going to show, and AMC has surprised us with everything that they’re allowing us to do. There was a plan at one point to shoot a lot of gore—which is what we did—but the original plan was to have re-edited versions of the episodes, that would go on DVD. But at this point, AMC hasn’t really made us pull anything.
EW: The kid was wearing rabbit ear slippers, for goodness sake!
RK: Well, Frank is very demented.
EW: Then the show cut back in time to a long conversation about women between Rick Grimes and his fellow cop, Shane (Jon Bernthal). It’s like the first scene was saying, “Hey, if you don’t like zombie movies, then switch over to Brothers and Sisters, but the second sequence made clear that this is not just going to be a show about people plunging axes into zombies’ heads.
RK: Yeah. It’s a very cool juxtaposition [that explains] what this show is going to be. The show is going to serve a lot of masters. There’s going to be very straight human drama stuff, and then there’s going to be very graphic, crazy zombie stuff. And it’s neat that in the first minutes of the first episode you get a sense of exactly what the show is going to be bringing you, week after week.
EW: I suspect a lot of people who are coming across the story of The Walking Dead for the first time would have thought that the guy-wakes-from-coma-to-discover-that-the-world-has-been-overrun-by-zombies plot was very similar to 28 Days Later. Presumably you had seen that film when you wrote the first issue of the comic?
RK: No. Welcome to my life seven years ago. It was complete coincidence. I saw 28 Days Later shortly before the first issue of Walking Dead was released. That first issue came out in October of 2003 and 28 Days Later was released in the States in June of 2003. So we were working on our second issue by the time I saw it. It was going to be a matter of somehow trying to restage the entire first issue, because it was a very similar coma opening. I made a decision—which I pretty much regret at this point—I said, “You know what? It’s so different [from that point on], I will probably never hear anything about this.” And I was wrong.
EW: So when you saw the movie you must have thought, “Oh s—!”
RK: Yeah. It was a little annoying. But great minds think alike, right?
EW: A colleague of mind who saw the pilot, and is unfamiliar with the zombie genre, couldn’t believe that Rick didn’t spend more time going “So, what exactly happened while I was in a coma?” He doesn’t seem to show a lot of interest in the details of how the entire world fell apart.
RK: Well, he has a lot distracting him. He has a wife and son that’s out there and right now he’s focusing on that. As the show progresses, you’ll see that Rick is a very one-track-mind kind of guy. He’s not going to stand around and go, “Well, I’m going to find my wife and son, but first we need to find out what all these dead people are doing.” Plus, if something like this were to really happen, the people in Georgia aren’t going to walk out of their houses and say, “We need to get to the bottom of this!” Pardon my French, but that’s like a bulls— action movie kind of stance. That’s not how it would be. The main worry would be, “How are we going to survive today? How are we going to find food? How are we going to protect ourselves?” People would just assume that the government was trying to do something. Or they would just assume that there was nothing we could do.
EW: It’s interesting, because Rick’s a cop, but he’s clearly not John McClane.
RK: Rick is a much more realistic police office. I always kind of pictured that Rick Grimes was not a police officer that had used his gun very often. He was just one of those guys that basically just walks by the local malt shop and made sure the kids were getting home on time.
EW: There was one zombie in the show that looked just like Jim Carrey, who worked with Frank Darabont on The Majestic. Can you confirm whether or not that was a cameo from Ace Ventura?
RK: It’s not Jim Carrey at all. And dammit, most days I remember that guy’s name. He’s a great guy. I’ve met him a few times. He works for [visual effects company] KNB. He appears like maybe four times as different zombies in the six episodes.
EW: Also, one of the first zombies we saw in the episode had no legs. Was that CGI or did you use an amputee actor?
RK: That was completely CGI. The woman was wearing basically blue stockings and then everything was cleaned out. There is an alarming amount of CGI in the pilot episode and in the whole show, and you would never know it. The company, Stargate, that does it, does a lot of CGI for television, and they do an amazing job. There’s a shot where Rick is riding off on the horse and his hat actually blew off, and they really liked that shot, and so they had Stargate go in and digitally put the hat back on his head.
EW: We also discovered in the pilot that zombies love eating horses, which is a departure from the undead mythology as set out in George A. Romero’s zombie films. In fact, as I’m sure you know, in Romero’s most recent zombie movie, Survival of the Dead, they spend a long time trying to persuade one of the zombies to eat a horse.
RK: Yes, that is true. Anecdotally, that is actually the exact same horse.
RK: Yeah, yeah, the trained horse in the Walking Dead pilot and is the exact same horse from Survival of the Dead. But again, similar to the 28 Days Later situation, the zombies-eating-the-horse thing was in The Walking Dead seven years ago. So, screw you George Romero! [Laughs]
EW: In the comic book, the affair between Rick’s wife Lori and Shane is over by the time we catch up with the characters. But in the show, they’re depicted as still together. Why?
RK: Well, I didn’t know how long the comic book series was going to last. I hoped that it would become a success and survive for years and years. But at that time in my career, it was very early, I had had a lot of books canceled, just because of poor sales. So early on in the book I would move past storylines very quickly. I set up this love triangle and I resolved that story and moved along within the first [few] issues. But there’s a lot of story potential to mine there. One of the things that the TV show is able to do is to look at the comic book series with hindsight and go, “This would probably be something that we could explore more.” And that’s what we’re going to be doing. So we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Lori-Shane-Rick love triangle.
EW: I’m very familiar with your still ongoing comic series. So, how confident should I be that I know which characters are going to survive for a long time?
RK: Not. Confident. At all. One of the best aspects of the comic book series is, when you sit down to read an issue, you really have no idea what’s going to happen. Anybody could go at any moment. There’s really no sense of safety in the comic book at all. And I wanted to preserve that for the television show. If people on the show have ideas for different things to happen, I encourage that. I want people to be as surprised by the show as they are by the comic book series.
Check back next week, when Kirkman answers our questions about the second episode of The Walking Dead.
Did you watch the show last night? What did you think? And check out the latest TV Insiders podcast in the video below, featuring an interview with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and star Andrew Lincoln!
More on The Walking Dead:
TV Insiders podcast: EW experts explain why ‘The Walking Dead’ will scare the beejezus out of you
‘Night of the Living Dead': How a 42-year-old zombie movie refuses to die
George Romero unlikely to direct an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’
‘Walking Dead’ exec producer Gale Anne Hurd talks about AMC’s no-holds-barred zombie show